‘Classics, the Culture Wars and Beyond’

Author discusses his new book on the battles over the discipline and its future.

January 6, 2017
 

Eric Adler's new book, Classics, the Culture Wars and Beyond (University of Michigan Press), is a mix of analysis of the history of culture-war battles over the classics, the state of the discipline today and prospects for its future.

Adler, associate professor of classics at the University of Maryland at College Park, responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: You note that Allan Bloom and many others who criticized the modern college curriculum were not necessarily champions of the classics. Why do you think this was the case? Was this significant?

A: Many critics of the humanities in American higher education during the academic culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s pined for a return to the old Great Books programs. They did not look back to the curricula of the antebellum classical colleges as their model -- in some cases out of distaste for the supposed elitism of classical studies, and in some cases because they did not appear to know that American colleges ever had a course of study dominated by Latin and ancient Greek. Bloom was different in this regard, since he did know this history, and criticized contemporary classical scholars for moving away from using Greek and Latin texts to examine life’s great questions in favor of philological quibbling. In any case, this state of affairs helps demonstrate the marginality of classical studies in contemporary higher education: even the supposed “conservatives” in the culture wars didn’t especially value the classics, preferring that college students study Great Books in English translation.

Q: The debate over Black Athena, which argued that there was a substantial and largely ignored African influence on ancient Greek civilization, drew attention to classics. What is the significance of this debate? Did it have a lasting impact on classics?

A: The controversy surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena volumes was the one classics-based debate during the academic culture wars that received wide exposure in the American media. Still, as I try to demonstrate in my book, the quarrels over Black Athena highlighted the marginality of classical studies in the academy. The American media really weren’t that interested in classical studies per se. Rather, the Afrocentric reaction to Black Athena drove the controversy. The Afrocentrists -- with their bombastic and, in some cases, bigoted rhetoric -- received the lion’s share of media attention because their work gave ammunition to conservative criticisms of American colleges and universities.

Though the American media weren’t chiefly concerned about classical studies, I’d guess that Bernal’s work has had some influence on the field. Black Athena likely helped spur on further interest in topics surrounding ancient multiculturalism, and it hopefully made classical scholars more aware of their potential biases.

Q: Many advocates for the humanities broadly see their disciplines in crisis. In what ways are classical studies facing the same crisis as other humanities fields? And are there ways that classics programs -- small compared to English and history departments, among others -- face a particular crisis?

A: The survey I conducted for my book suggests that a majority of North American classical scholars believes that their discipline is in crisis. In many respects, I would imagine that the reasons for this impression are similar to those offered by scholars in other fields. But the situation may seem even more dire for classicists because of the cardinal importance to the discipline of the study of ancient Greek and Latin. Many American colleges and universities have watered down or removed their language requirements. And even those that haven’t done so typically view language study as a means to strike up a conversation with native speakers when you’re on vacation or in a business meeting. Few institutions recognize the value of studying ancient languages in order for students to gain direct access to works of fundamental importance to our civilization. Thus it’s exceptionally hard to attract students to Latin and Greek.

Q: Your book features results of a survey and interviews with classics scholars. What is your chief takeaway from that research about how they view the field?

A: Over all, I found the interviews really encouraging. American classical scholars care deeply about their field and the continuation of the classical tradition. I was delighted by the thoughtful reflections so many of my interviewees offered. As far as the survey is concerned, I think I was most surprised by the political imbalance in the field. I’m not so naïve that I am unaware of academia’s left-leaning tilt, but I thought that classical studies -- given the traditionalism of the field -- would have encouraged more balance. And yet my survey shows that a very small percentage of American classical scholars consider themselves politically right of center. [The survey, discussed in the book, found that fewer than 8 percent of classics scholars described themselves as conservative or far right, while 19 percent said they were centrists and the remainder were either liberal or far left.]

Q: What strategies would you advise classics scholars and departments to consider to assure the health of the field?

A: I offer a host of suggestions in the final chapter of my book. One of the most important, I think, is to fight against the distribution-requirements system that is so dominant in undergraduate general education. The pick-and-choose curriculum at most institutions of higher learning in the U.S. offers no vision of what it means to be an educated person. Is it a surprise that students react to this system by choosing the easiest and/or most vocational courses? Classicists should help create optional core curricula for undergraduates at their institutions, which offer a concrete picture of what it means to be educated and which reinforce (among other things) the cardinal importance of Greco-Roman civilization to the shaping of our culture. These days, such optional core programs cannot perfectly resemble Allan Bloom’s views on higher education. But they should supply undergraduates with a vision of an educated person.

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